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The world has slowed to a crawl under coronavirus lockdowns, with a stunning side effect: As driving, flying, and electricity generation all took a major hit, climate pollution saw an unprecedented drop.
While this precipitous decline in emissions projected for 2020 won’t save the planet from catastrophic warming, climate experts say that investments embracing clean energy to help nations’ economies recover from this disaster just might.
“Putting 33 million Americans out of work and locking down 4 billion people around the world is not the way to solve the climate crisis,” John Podesta, a top Democratic political strategist now advising a new initiative called Climate Power 2020, told BuzzFeed News last week. “The reality is we have to transform the global economy from one that’s dependent on fossil fuels to one powered by clean energy. That is a massive undertaking.”
This chart, based on an analysis of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions done by the International Energy Agency, puts the projected fall in emissions for 2020 in context. In absolute terms, it is the largest year-on-year drop on record.
But previous declines triggered by economic upheavals were quickly reversed. Indeed, as shown on this chart, after the end of the recession that followed the 2007 global financial crisis, stimulus spending in 2010 powered the largest year-on-year increase in emissions to date.
“What we see is after you have a downturn, the year after or a couple of years after, emissions rebound very strongly,” Laura Cozzi, IEA’s chief energy modeler, told BuzzFeed News.
This animation shows a trajectory for future emissions that would meet the aggressive target set by the world’s nations in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, limiting the rise in global temperatures to about 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The IEA has projected a 7.7% drop in energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for 2020, which closely matches the annual cuts that experts say are needed over the coming decades to meet the 1.5-degree target. This path requires deeply slashing global emissions to the point where the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere equals what’s being pulled out of it by forests, oceans, and other “sinks” for carbon.
The emissions cuts caused by pandemic lockdowns will not get us anywhere near that. And that also gives the clearest indication yet that steps taken by individuals to reduce their carbon footprint, such as flying less, were never going to fix the climate crisis. “These are good things too, but they aren’t commensurate with the challenge,” Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA and adjunct researcher at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told BuzzFeed News by email.
The IEA estimated that energy-related carbon emissions were down about 5% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year, largely a result of decreased use of fossil fuels during the pandemic. Coal use suffered the biggest decline worldwide, with emissions dropping 8%; meanwhile, oil emissions dropped 4.5% and natural gas declined 2.3%.
COVID-19 lockdowns weren’t the only driving factor. A mild Northern Hemisphere winter also reduced energy needs for heating, and there was a trend away from coal to electricity sources that are now cheaper, including renewables and natural gas. “So really the coal story is certainly a COVID story, but it’s beyond that,” Cozzi said.
A second study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Climate Change is broadly consistent with the IEA analysis. Looking at outbreak-related policies and mobility in 69 countries including the US, an international team of researchers estimated that at the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns in early April, daily carbon dioxide emissions were 17% below the average for 2019. If these restrictions are lifted by mid-June, the annual drop could be as low as 4%, but if some policies stay in place through the end of the year, there could be around a 7% fall in total emissions in 2020.
In the US, where more than 90,000 people have died from COVID-19, carbon emissions from energy are projected to dip 11% in 2020 compared to the previous year, according to a US Energy Information Administration projection. That’s mainly due to a predicted 23% decline in emissions from coal and 11% from petroleum.
While the current fall in emissions isn’t the answer to the climate crisis, stimulus investment in green energy could be, climate scientists say. “What will make the difference is what the governments invest in,” Corinne Le Quéré, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK and lead author of the Nature Climate Change study, told BuzzFeed News.
Right now, governments around the world are sending mixed signals on their commitment to using stimulus spending to build a more sustainable energy economy.
In the US, coronavirus-related recovery measures enacted by Congress have so far been focused on getting trillions of dollars into the hands of individuals and businesses as quickly as possible to help buffer the impacts of lost jobs.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has publicly supported giving recovery money to struggling oil companies. Coal firms have also managed to secure stimulus money earmarked for small businesses.
But lobbyists are starting to make the push on Capitol Hill for future stimulus packages to specifically hasten the transition to a greener, clean energy economy. Last week, representatives from more than 300 businesses had a call with Democrats and Republicans in Congress, advocating for resiliency and climate solutions to be included in recovery plans.
The federal government needs to invest in state-level climate and clean energy programs, according to Sam Ricketts, founder of a new climate policy and advocacy group called Evergreen Action. The group, along with Data for Progress, has outlined how to do this, from investing in low-income home energy and weatherization assistance programs to funding expansions in state and local public transit systems. States have been leading the way on adopting pro-climate and renewable energy policies. But they also have to tightly balance their budgets, unlike the federal government, and the economic toll of the pandemic is triggering budget cuts.
California, a leader in climate efforts, is now facing a $54 billion budget deficit. In response, Gov. Gavin Newsom is now planning to cut spending, including a $1 billion loan fund intended to boost green businesses, such as electric vehicle charging stations. Proposed spending on the state’s cap-and-trade program would be cut by more than $400 million.
Other countries have already started folding climate action into their recovery packages. In Canada, companies that apply for stimulus funding have to commit to disclosing how their future operations support environmental sustainability and help meet the country’s climate goals. Despite facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks, Spanish officials announced a proposal on Tuesday aiming to cut their climate emissions to net-zero by 2050.
The coronavirus pandemic puts the US at a crucial crossroads for addressing the climate crisis. The stimulus needed to restart the economy will either focus on green energy or a return to growing carbon emissions, locking in the nation’s response for decades to come. Climate advocates argue this fate will likely be decided by the 2020 election.
“If you think that one of the strategies of putting people back to work is going to be investing in more sustainable patterns of growth, cleaner energy, you’ve got to make that argument before the election,” said Podesta. “It sets the table for action in 2021.”